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Me and the Winnebagos

I don’t know how long it took me to think about how strange it is that everything is “sioux” around here–Sioux City, Sioux Falls, Sioux County, Siouxland, Sioux Center, Big Sioux River, Little Sioux River; and yet, there’s not a Sioux to be seen anywhere close. Most people come to that startling realization rather quickly because it makes no sense, or seems to.

But then for most of my life I didn’t know the word “sioux” was a slur, that people who are Sioux today don’t like the word because it was given to them by the Ojibwa who, once upon a time, ran them out of Minnesota. “Sioux” means “snake,” like the one my wife spotted in the rock retaining wall out front yesterday and then told me it was time to sell the house.

Maybe palefaces like me should rename everything Sioux with snake so that we’d live in Snake County, Snakeland. Maybe the town at the heart of Snake County, the town we lived in for most of our lives, Snake Center, should be just up the road from Snake City, Iowa, and down the road from Snake Falls, South Dakota.

Not going to happen.

I grew up 500 miles east in what was once the homeland of the Winnebagos, a powerful tribe of hunter-gatherers who lived in wood-framed dwellings up and down the woods along the western coast of Lake Michigan. I didn’t know any Winnebagos. I might have, I suppose, had I tried to hunt some up. But they were pretty much gone from the southern lakeshore already when, long ago, my great-great grandfather came from Holland. Here’s what his obituary says:

With his father and the remainder of the family, our subject came to this [Sheboygan] county in 1846. They were compelled to take their axes and cut roads land, paying $1.25 per acre. This property was in the midst of the forest and had never before been occupied by while settlers. Then the hardships and trials of the early pioneer were experienced, for they had very little to eat, not much clothing, and scarcely any of the comforts of life. The red men were still numerous in this section, but were not troublesome to the white settlers, except as beggars.
By the time I came along, a whole century later, those beggars were long gone.

Some were “up north” in Wisconsin, but many Winnebagos were here, just down the road in Nebraska, on a little reservation along the Missouri River. I know now that I’ve always lived somewhere alongside the Winnebagos, just never knew any. That, I guess, shouldn’t be surprising. I’ve lived somewhere around all kinds of people I never knew too.

But I knew their stories–the stories of other European settlers. I was taught “the hardships and trials of the early pioneer” who had “very little to east, not much clothing, and scarcely any of the comforts of life.” I knew something about that. Somewhere along the line, I was taught that story.

But my family did move those Winnebagos out.

And often. In the 1860s, the Winnebagos just down the road in Nebraska moved there from the Crow Creek Reservation in South Dakota, where they’d been shipped after Minnesota literally got rid of all its Native people following what white folks called the Sioux Uprising of 1862. That horror happened a couple hours from here. Not all that far, really.

How the Winnebagos got to Minnesota is another story. When people like my great-great grandfather (his wife had died just after he immigrated) moved into the lakeshore woods in Sheboygan County, Wisconsin, a goodly chunk of the Winnebagos got moved from Iowa, where they’d been sent after the Blackhawk wars of the 1830s, to Crow Wing, Minnesota, and then to Blue Earth, Minnesota, because the land they’d been given when they lost the lakeshore, land in southwest Wisconsin, was full of lead mines white people wanted. Wanted badly, in fact.

Is this making any sense?

Unlike the Sioux (Lakota, Dakota, Nakota) and all kinds of Great Plains Native people, the Winnebagos were not nomadic, not out chasing buffalo while living in tents in movable campgrounds, like some people today do in–guess what?–Winnebagos. That’s a joke.

What I want to say is that the Winnebagos were, in some ways, what white America wanted their Indian people to be–largely settled, living off the land. And basically, we still handled them like soccer balls, which you don’t “handle,” per se, but kick.

What’s more, the Winnebagos had sometimes worked for the Great White Father. They’d been peacemakers when some of their neighbors kept killing each other; they moved into zones were they became the buffer between endless battling. Numbers of Winnebagos had served as scouts for the American cavalry. Today, we might just call them heroes. Back then, they were Redskins.

Here’s the story–my story. I grew up on land that once belonged to them. When I lived in southwest Wisconsin, Lafayette County, I lived on what could well have been their land before they were moved west to Iowa. Some of them lived in Iowa when my great-grandparents on my father’s side immigrated from Holland, and, for all of my life here in Siouxland–forty years and more–they lived just down the Missouri River a ways.

That I didn’t know any Winnebagos really isn’t a surprise, but that I didn’t know any of this for maybe sixty years of my life should be. I never knew they fought with the British during the American Revolution, then again in the War of 1812. I knew nothing at all about them, even though chapters of their story are just a few pages away from mine throughout most of the Upper Midwest. Nobody ever told me about them. No one ever said.

That I know so little is amazing, really, isn’t it?

Of course–yuk, yuk–this is Siouxland.

James C. Schaap

James Calvin Schaap is a retired English prof who has been something of a writer for most of the last 40 years. His latest work, a novel, Looking for Dawn, set in reservation country, is the story of two young women joined by their parents' mutual brokenness and, finally, a machine-shed sacrament of reconciliation. He writes and narrates a weekly essay on regional history for KWIT, public radio, Sioux City, Iowa. He and his wife Barbara live on the northern edge of Alton, Iowa, the Sgt. Floyd River a hundred yards or so from their back door. They have a cat--rather, he has them.

One Comment

  • Yes, thanks, Jim. We need to hear about the pre-Euro-American settlers here. Blood Run, Spirit Lake, Pipestone, and reservations nearby but conveniently out of sight and mind (the casinos, though, are another story) ….

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